Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Traveling Type Nerds Check Out Signs

My husband and I freely admit to being a couple of type nerds. Other people just read signs on commercial buildings; we check out type styles on signs. Is the type interesting, attractive, and well suited to the business? Some type is; some isn’t.

So many typefaces on signs now are bland and generic, the inevitable plain sans serifs. While readable (a good thing), these Helvetica clones can be boring. It’s like going to an ice cream shop with 98 flavors and choosing vanilla.

Still, if you keep your eyes open when you travel, you’ll see fascinating signs. There are old signs (see the top of this blog) and new ones (see below). Newer signs sometimes mingle type styles, as in the awning for this tavern. Just looking at the type on the sign makes you feel like it’s a hip, trendy place to hang out.

Other signs use specially designed letters to create a certain mood. This cafe sign, spotlighted in neon, has a modern, fun look. You’d expect the food to be innovative and tasty just by looking at the type on the sign.

On the other hand, this sign for a restaurant/tavern along the river in a small town seems to have missed the boat, to use a bad pun. For a restaurant located in a historic district with a pretty river setting, you’d expect a sign with old-time lettering like steamboat jig work. Instead this sign makes you feel that food here may be ordinary at best.

Using the right type on a sign can make customers feel good about shopping at a business without knowing why. But using the wrong type can jolt or confuse people.

It’s hard to go wrong with a classic, as this bookstore sign shows. Using Roman style capitals similar to Hadriano Stonecut, this sign makes you feel that there’s good reading inside the door. There’s a literary feel, an understated elegance, that says a booklover would enjoy this place.

In the other hand, the used auto business sign below uses Old English in glaring red and black. That might be perfect for a medieval pub, but really doesn’t fit with the sleek modern image of cars.

The sign for old fashioned donuts below has letters that are appropriately fat and round. Can you imagine a donut shop sign with skinny, stick-like letters, and would you go there? Donuts are a simple pleasure, and this sign is simple too, but with a flair that says old time bakery.

Unfortunately, this sign for a nail salon shows no hint of upscale femininity. The thick, clunky type, a computer-fattened takeoff on Art Deco, makes you feel like your nails will weigh a thousand pounds when you leave.

Similarly this sign for a Chinese restaurant is a study in confusion. The garish red and green awning has distorted textlike letters that almost defy description. It makes you wonder what kind of strange Oriental food you will encounter within.

A perfect example of type used in the right way is this sign for a music store. The Celtic style type makes the storefront distinctive. You can almost hear the sound of the harps and pipes and see the Irish dancers.

Being a traveling type nerd is fun. All it takes is a little observation. How does a sign make you feel about the business it represents? What good and bad examples of type usage on signs have you seen?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Printing for Treasure Gems

Treasure Gems, a bound 4 ½ by 6 yearbook of printing contributions by members of the Amalgamated Printers Association (APA) began in 1971, the same year I joined the group. It took me a little while to get going though – my first Treasure Gems piece was a quote from Emerson printed in 1978:

Over the years my husband and I have printed several times for Treasure Gems. It’s a great opportunity to showcase printed pieces. And since people collect and save Treasure Gems booklets, it’s one way to insure that your printing will be preserved and appreciated for many years!

Some of our Treasure Gems pieces have been historical, illustrating the use of a particular typeface. For example, the “Murder She Wrote” piece below talks about Art Gothic, an 1884 typeface that was also used for titling on the former television program.

We’ve done Treasure Gems pieces that show off border, too. Two below are for Acme Border, an early 20th century geometric from the Inland Type Foundry; and for Floriated Border, an eccentric 1890 concoction of flowers, twigs, and bark, designed by the Central Type Foundry.

One of our Treasure Gems pieces used an article from an old printing magazine. "Odor of a Printshop" talked about how printers get attached to the smell of kerosene, oil, and ink. They say printing gets in your blood, but in this case it gets in your nostrils!

Sometimes we've gotten whimsical, too. “American Types” was a poem published in a 1912 printing bulletin by American Type Founders, a typecasting company. Designed to be sung to the tune of “America the Beautiful”, the poem’s multiple verses celebrated ATF’s product ― a sneaky way to advertise. We thought it was kind of fun to sing the song, despite its occasionally clunky rhymes.

On the serious side, when a printer friend of ours died suddenly, we printed “Promise to a Printer” as a memorial piece. My husband wrote a “printerly” poem and we published it in memory of our friend.

Humorous or serious, historical or not, Treasure Gems contains some of the best printing from the Amalgamated Printers Association, the letterpress group I joined 40 years ago. And what a joy to work with other printers to create a booklet that will continue to be read and enjoyed years later!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St Louis Letterpress Society

In October 1989 we attended our first St. Louis Letterpress Society meeting. The newly formed book arts group had met just a few times before we heard about it. Now we’ve been members for over 20 years.

Membership in St. Louis Letterpress Society is refreshing in its informality. There are no dues, no officers, no boards, and only the most casual of business meetings. Anyone interested in the book arts, including letterpress printing, calligraphy, paper marbling, bookbinding or typecasting is invited to a quarterly meeting followed by a potluck dinner in a member’s home. Over the years we’ve hosted St. Louis Letterpress Society a number of times. Our small house fills to capacity with area people who love handmade books. It’s an exciting and fun experience that generally inspires us to print!

St. Louis Letterpress Society programs over the years have ranged from tours to talks to guest speakers or demonstrations. There have been demonstrations by paper marblers, typecasters, bookbinders, and stone engravers, as well as speakers on fine press books, paper, ink, or printing history. Attendees sometimes come from miles away. There’s camaraderie, good food and talk, and the opportunity for those newly interested in the book arts to learn more. Below are a few St. Louis Letterpress invitations from over the years:

Though small (less than 60 members) St. Louis Letterpress Society has been a fairly active group. Most years we’ve produced a cooperative annual booklet, and sometimes a group calendar as well. We’ve hosted exhibits, brought speakers in from other areas, and even had a float in a parade! It’s been a lot of fun and a chance to cultivate some wonderful friendships. It’s helped us to become better printers, and has given us a network of support in our creative endeavors.

So if you have the chance to get together with people in your area who love the book arts – I would highly recommend it!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Xanadu Press: Then and Now

Xanadu Press, my husband’s and my private press, was founded in 1971. Then single and still living at home, I attended the St. Louis APA Wayzgoose with my family. I’d been interested in printing for some time, and had spent a lot of time helping my father in his print shop. So when an opening came up in the Amalgamated Printers Association, I didn’t hesitate. I was excited and started to print right away. My first project was a proprietor’s card, or “prop card” for my new press (see above).

I’d always loved the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree...” So I named my press The Xanadu Press. By the way, Xanadu Press has nothing to do with that disco roller skating movie that came out in 1980!

My first printing efforts were modest. I printed a bookplate with a quote from William Blake. I did a holiday card, and a few Ben Franklin quotes. Then I decided to put together a small booklet of my poetry and call it Xanadu.

After our marriage my husband became interested in printing, too. My father Gary Hantke continued as a mentor to us both. Initially we lived in the same town and close to my father’s print shop, with its wealth of type, borders, and ornaments. But after we began moving in conjunction with our teaching careers, we acquired a 5x8 Kelsey hand press and a few type fonts of our own in the interest of portability.

It was then that we began to understand how difficult printing can be without the right equipment. We struggled with our little Kelsey press, trying to get a decent impression. Our main types were Cheltenham Bold and a little battered Caslon. It was hard to print something nice with so little variety.

We did create a small booklet called The Little Book of Steamboat Puns. It was notable mainly for the dreadful puns we came up with (for example: What do you call a 2000 pound steamboat thief? Robber Full-ton). In a fit of printerly pride, we gave a copy to the late musician and river enthusiast John Hartford at one of his concerts. He was very gracious, and actually remembered the booklet when we talked to him at a performance 15 years later. Maybe it was the awful puns that were memorable!

In the early 1980s we acquired a 7x11 Pearl press, hauling it in our AMC Pacer through a driving rainstorm in Philadelphia and back to our Wisconsin home. Now it was a little easier to print, especially since we’d bought more type from a printer in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. Living on the outskirts of a tiny village on the Mississippi River we were virtually rural, with a huge garden and beehives. We printed labels to sell jelly and honey at local farmer’s markets.

After our move to St. Louis in 1987, we became more active printers through our involvement with the St. Louis Letterpress Society and the APA. Following Dad’s death in 1990, we hauled most of his shop down to St. Louis in an exhausting move we’ll never forget (but more on that in a future blog!) We began printing items for our new St. Louis interests, some of which are shown below: a steamboat museum’s 50th anniversary program; a button for my husband’s museum co-workers after an exhibit installation; and a piece promoting the first of three APA Wayzgoose conventions in St. Louis.

Today we print more than we did in our earlier years. The lure of the print shop seems greater every year, with many projects to excite us. As Xanadu Press marks its 40th anniversary this summer, I’m grateful for all those printing opportunities, now and in the future.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Best of The Willow Press

If my father Gary Hantke, proprietor of the Willow Press, were alive he’d be 91 today. He would have had 21 more years to print, a gift he would have enjoyed. As it was, he printed actively for about 40 years, from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s.

Dad loved his print shop! He spent much of his free time on weekends there. Often he couldn’t sleep in the morning, so he went downstairs to print. As a result he was a prolific printer – though much of his printing consisted of smaller pieces he could complete in the early morning hours. But projects large and small show the same careful craftsmanship.

Following is a selection of printed pieces by The Willow Press. As I look at Dad’s printing today, I appreciate the design, the impression, the use of white space. Here are some of the best of the best.

Type ‘N’ Stuff was a journal my father put out in the 1950s. I like the colors he used on this cover, and the Parsons type in the title.

My father frequently contributed pages to cooperative booklets such as Treasure Gems and It’s a Small World. This piece for It’s a Small World showcased some of his collection of initial letters.

Dad’s favorite type designer was Frederic Goudy. This quote was one he liked, and he hung it on his print shop wall.

Below are two holiday booklets produced by the Willow Press (see also “Hantke Family Christmas Cards”, December 2010).

There’s a personal story behind “A Council of Free Nations”. Before printing it my father wrote to Herbert Hoover to request permission to quote the speech. In the letter Dad told an anecdote about his mother ― she'd told him cocoa that helped to keep relatives in Germany alive between the World Wars came from Herbert Hoover. Hoover replied personally to Dad’s letter and gave permission to reprint the speech. He added that the cocoa came from the American people and he was only the instrument.

Dad’s largest printing effort was a book, “Lincoln the Railsplitter”, published in 1961. It was entirely handset, one letter and space at a time, a true labor of love. Though reasonably priced at $4.00, the 500 copies of the book sold sluggishly. Perhaps as a result, Dad decided to devote his time to less time-consuming printing projects. He still entertained the idea of a miniature book with fellow printer Ward Schori, who had produced several, but it never happened.

Of the many pieces my father printed, The Fool’s Prayer is one of my favorites. I appreciate the cover with its pattern of clowns, and the imaginative usage of Worrell Uncial inside. Simple and beautifully printed, it’s a piece that speaks for itself.

So Happy Birthday, Dad! I still miss you. How I wish you could have had those extra years! But my husband and I are so grateful for the love of printing you handed down to us.